Casualties of the Marijuana War

It isn't just cancer and AIDS patients who are suffering because of America's anti-pot hysteria. Hundreds of small-time users are in jail -- for life.

By Lowell Weiss
March 28, 1997 1:00AM (UTC)
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Notes of sanity have begun appearing in the great marijuana debate. In the last election, Arizona and California voters passed, by wide margins, referendums allowing for the medical use of marijuana if recommended by a medical doctor. The Clinton administration, which had set its face firmly against any form of legalization, even for medical purposes, convened an expert panel under the auspices of the National Institute of Health to study the matter further. The prestigious New England Journal of Medicine has editorialized for a change of policy.

If these moves signal a cooling of the war on marijuana, they could not have come at a more crucial time. As Eric Schlosser argues in a lengthy article in the April Atlantic, the war has caused enormous collateral damage -- not only to those in pain, but throughout the nation's courts and prisons. Violent criminals, Schlosser writes, are being released early from the nation's prisons to make room for the swelling masses of marijuana and other petty drug offenders locked up with mandatory-minimum sentences that carry no possibility of parole. Nonviolent marijuana offenders, especially those sentenced in federal courts, often spend far more time behind bars than murderers. Some are serving life sentences.


Schlosser won a National Magazine Award for his two-part series on marijuana that ran in the Atlantic in 1994. Salon talked with Schlosser about his recent findings, which he says suggests America is "caught in the grip of a deep psychosis."

In some states, you write, the rate of incarceration for drug offenders has increased so rapidly that new prisons would have to be opened every 90 days to keep up -- at a cost of more than $100,000 per cell. With government budget-cutting so in vogue, how did these huge costs escape politicians' notice?

It's simple: Policy is not being driven by reason, it's driven by political expediency. It's very similar to anti-Communism crusades of the 1950s. The only politicians who feel secure enough to question our policies are those who are out of office.


And, you say, liberals seem to be just as cowed by the hysteria as conservatives.

Yes. As I point out in my piece, last year even liberals like (Sen.) Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) lined up behind (Sen.) Phil Gramm's (R-Texas) proposal to revoke federal welfare and food stamps from anyone convicted of a drug crime, even a misdemeanor. Politicians of both parties insist on dealing with this issue almost exclusively through the criminal justice system -- not through the public health system. If you're an alcoholic, there are hundreds of rehab programs available; if you're a drug abuser, the government would just as soon lock you up and throw away the key.

How many marijuana offenders are serving life sentences?


The figures don't exist. None of the usual federal data sources keep track of nonviolent marijuana cases as separate from other nonviolent drug cases. But we know it's in the hundreds.

But they would be for the big dealers, not your average user.

Not necessarily. For example, Jim Montgomery, a paraplegic immobilized from the waist down who used marijuana to relieve pain, was busted in Sayre, Okla., with two ounces of marijuana in a pouch in the back of his wheelchair. It was a first offense. He got life plus 16 years.


So, don't ever get busted in Oklahoma. Are there wide variations from state to state?

Oklahoma is by far the worst in terms of length of sentence. New Mexico is the most lenient. For less than 100 pounds, the maximum penalty is 18 months. For more than 100 pounds, the maximum penalty is three years.

When do the feds get involved?


Federal prosecutors have the right to press federal charges for any amount of marijuana. But guidelines vary from region to region. In some districts, a federal prosecutor will not press charges unless there are more than 100 plants involved, for example.

How has the Clinton administration performed in the marijuana wars?

Under Clinton, the number of marijuana arrests has gone up by more than 40 percent. In 1995, the most recent year we have data on, authorities arrested 600,000 people for marijuana offenses -- more than ever before. Next year's budget for the war on drugs is the largest in American history.


Yet he's being attacked because drug use has gone up during his presidency. Should he be feeling defensive?

Yes, he does have reason to feel defensive. His law-and-order approach to marijuana is destroying thousands of lives without demonstrably reducing marijuana use. It is a failed policy. Arrests have reached an all-time peak at the same time that use has tripled. People accuse junkies of behaving self-destructively, but in the case of marijuana, the government is even more wedded to such behavior.

You write that a lot of the trouble is being caused by the mandatory minimum sentence laws. How did they come about with respect to drugs?

In some states, these statutes have been on the books for more than 20 years. But the real turning point was 1986. And one high-profile case was all it took. Two days after signing a lucrative rookie deal with the Boston Celtics, star basketball player Len Bias suddenly died, allegedly after smoking crack. The story became the nation's topic No. 1. Mid-term elections were around the corner, and (former House Speaker) Tip O'Neill knew he had to do something, so he assembled his troops and in about six weeks wrote and passed the most sweeping drug-control legislation in a generation. There was no careful deliberation. There were no public hearings on the mandatory minimum provisions. The result was devastating to the criminal justice system.


How does the law work?

At the state and federal level, a mandatory minimum sentence is triggered by the amount of drugs involved in a case -- not by a person's role in the crime. Whether you're the guy driving the truck for $1,000 or you own a fleet of trucks and are making tens of millions, you are subject to the same strict penalties.

How much discretion do prosecutors have?

A lot. In many respects they now have more power to determine sentencing than judges. It's up to the prosecutor to decide how much of the drug to include in the indictment, and whether to file under a mandatory minimum statute at all. They often use these statutes to plea bargain; the ability to pile one mandatory minimum charge on top of another gives enormous leverage to the prosecutor.


In my article I give a great example of just how much discretion prosecutors have. Indiana Congressman Dan Burton, the Republican heading up the House's investigation of campaign-finance improprieties, and a supporter of life sentences for some marijuana crimes, has a son who has gotten himself into a mess of trouble. Danny Burton II was busted for driving about eight pounds of pot from Louisiana to Indiana. Six months later, police raided his apartment and found 30 marijuana plants and a shotgun. The feds did not press charges. Indiana prosecutors got his charges dismissed. In Louisiana, he got off with community service, probation and house arrest. Under federal drug laws, just for the gun alone Burton could have faced a mandatory sentence of five years in prison. Suffice it to say that most offenders don't have this kind of luck with prosecutors.

Where do you stand on the debate about the health effects of marijuana?

The Lancet, one of the most influential medical journals in the world, recently concluded -- and these are the exact words -- "the smoking of cannabis, even long-term, is not harmful to health." I'm not quite that categorical. It's clear that inhaling smoke is bad for your lungs. I also believe that people who smoke marijuana on a daily basis put themselves at risk of reversible short-term memory problems. It's also clear that young people shouldn't smoke pot. It's bad for athletic and academic performance, and it can exacerbate emotional problems, too.

So can other substances, which are legal. Why is marijuana still such a target?


I think it has everything to do with who those users are. This society does not scorn all drugs. Alcohol is very respectable. We even allow beer ads on MTV, a network aimed at people 12-24 years old. But pot is different. In America, pot has been associated with the wrong elements: Mexicans, blacks and nonconformists of all stripes. The war on marijuana has little to do with health. It has everything to do with culture. It's a moral crusade. And moral crusades often have perverse results. In this case, we're giving life sentences without parole to first offenders for small amounts of a relatively harmless substance.

Besides the successful medicinal-marijuana ballot measures, are there other encouraging signs on the horizon?

At the state level, legislators are getting fed up with mandatory minimums. As prisons get more and more overstuffed, they're starting to look at alternative sentencing -- like boot camps -- along with expanded drug treatment. Last year in Ohio they decriminalized the growing of small amounts of marijuana for personal use. The provision was tucked into a larger bill, but nonetheless the bill received the support of the state's conservative governor, George Voinovich.

At the national level, there's just extraordinary cowardice. Unfortunately, I don't think we'll have any constructive changes in federal marijuana policy in the foreseeable future.

| Suicide in San Diego |
Were cultists recruited on the Web?

"The really frightening thing one finds here is the combination of the technology of the World Wide Web and the old celestial astrology that has been around since the beginning of human history."


as of Thursday afternoon, little was known about the 39 men and women who were found dead in a luxurious house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. They were of various ages, sported buzz-cut hairstyles, and were found with purple shrouds covering their faces and chests. They also reportedly worked for a Web design company called WW Higher Source. One of the Web sites designed by Higher Source, according to news reports, was for an organization called Heaven's Gate -- which planned to leave Earth and rendezvous with a spaceship behind the Hale-Bopp comet. It appears that the victims were members of this organization.

"The joy is that our Older Member in the Evolutionary Level above human (the 'Kingdom of Heaven') has made it clear to us that Hale-Bopp's approach is the 'marker' we've been waiting for," a statement on the Heaven's Gate site read. "Our 22 years of classroom here on planet Earth is finally coming to conclusion -- 'graduation' from the Human Evolutionary Level. We are happily prepared to leave 'this world' and go with Ti's crew."

If, as now appears, the 39 people committed mass suicide, what would have been their motivation? Salon spoke Thursday with Larry A. Trachte, assistant professor of religion at Wartburg College in Waverly, Iowa. Trachte, who is also the college pastor, has taught courses on contemporary religions and sects for the past 15 years.

We've had People's Temple, the Order of the Solar Temple and now Higher Source. What makes these groups commit mass suicide?

I don't think they see it as suicide. As bizarre as it might seem to us, I'm sure that they saw it as moving on to another dimension of existence. Much as a Hindu or Buddhist would, in the sense of a reincarnation or migration to another realm of being.

So the people who died in Rancho Santa Fe weren't committing suicide, they were moving on to another adventure in some other dimension?

Yes, and I might add that there are traces of that belief in some Eastern religions. Suicide is often viewed in Buddhism as a noble way. Death is not seen as an enemy or as something to fear or flee. Even suicide is seen in a much more different light than in the West.

Based on what we know as of now, is there anything about this California group that sets it apart?

The really frightening thing one finds here is the combination of the technology of the World Wide Web and the old celestial astrology that has been around since the beginning of human history. You have an interesting dichotomy of beliefs coming together. There are literally thousands of groups like this all over now. All you have to do is search for them on the World Wide Web.

Why is the Web so attractive to these groups?

It adds an entirely new dimension to recruiting and accessibility. It opens up another dimension of cult possibilities and awareness that never existed before.

Many of the people who are drawn to cults are seeking absolute answers. They're often very bright, but they're introverts in terms of social skills and personality. So getting into religion on a computer is perfect for these kind of people. It provides instant access, it knows no geographical bounds, it allows for anonymity and yet a high degree of individuality. So just as people use their telephones for sex, you can use your computer for religion.

Again, based on what we know so far, does this San Diego cult sound like a doomsday or millenarian cult?

No. I didn't hear any of the language you would expect to hear from a doomsday or millennialist group that sits around waiting for the end of the world. It sounds more like a combination of some of the dimensions of a UFO cult, plus the appearance of this Hale-Bopp. Add the fact that it was highly organized -- probably around a leader and therefore highly suggestible -- and you end up with a rather unique combination of things.

And that's true of many of the new groups now. They're very creative. They're creating their own rules and theologies. And to the extent that groups like this have access to tens of thousands of people on the Internet, that's kind of scary. It used to be that you had to stand in an airport to recruit those who wandered by. Now, all you have to do is open up a Web site.

Is there any significance that this apparent mass suicide occurred around the solstice and Easter?

It appears this was a rather eclectic group, drawing from different sources and associations. So given that this is Holy Week, I'm sure that was one part of it. But I've heard their suicide was their way of joining a UFO that was traveling behind the Hale-Bopp comet. Some have suggested this was a strictly Christian group, but it doesn't sound very Christian to me. I would say it was more of a contemporary, New Age sort of group with a strong leader.

The age-old question: What kind of people join these groups?

One shouldn't oversimplify, but generally, it's people who are searching, who are discontented. They are idealists. They're often very bright and creative, the kind of people who easily become bored with mainline religion and want a new kind of adventure. At the same time, they are often looking for absolute answers. It's an interesting dialectic. I don't think it's accidental that many people who lean toward the sciences end up as fundamentalist Christians. On college campuses, the science departments often are the most conservative departments. These are people who are quite literal thinkers. They're looking for hard facts, answers, someone to tell them what reality is.

So in these cults, you have, on the one hand, the vulnerability of people who are searching and frustrated, combined with people who have some very creative answers that are exciting, new and adventuresome. But they're often also very isolated, in some ways the misfits of society. They don't have a lot of close relationships. The cults create pseudo-family. It was interesting to hear that even with all these people in the San Diego house, no one was talking to one another. They were always in front of their computer screens.

Yet while they may not have spoken with one another, they all died together. So they must have related to one another in some way.

Or to the leader. The definition of a cult is that it has an absolute leader who exercises absolute authority over the followers. So if the leader says, "This is what we're going to do," that's what they do. And whether that leader is Jim Jones or Do, as they called this fellow in San Diego, or David Koresh, the basic allegiance is to the leader. He is the one who dispenses reality. And if that leader says it's time to check out of this world and go on to the next, his followers check out.

Lowell Weiss

Lowell Weiss is a Boston writer. He was formerly a speech writer for Vice President Al Gore and a staff editor at the Atlantic.

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